Community investment in broadband access reaps long-term benefits beyond cash

With the scent of federal money in the air, our favorite topic of broadband continues to generate a lot of talk time, and so today I’m going to share a sort of “Teresa’s Broadband 101,” a straightforward and very non-technical guide that I’ve used to help people frame their own questions about the topic.

I’ve been working with technology, community and business for decades, figuring out a way to use a digital path to share, communicate and connect. Anytime people ask me about broadband, the first thing I say is this: don’t start talking tech about it.

Yes, of course, technology makes broadband possible but at the end of the day, the real questions about broadband in a community don’t come down to fiber versus wireless or 100 Mbps versus 1 Gig service, but instead represent a question of the infrastructure we want to develop and the types of interactions we, as a community, want to support and enable.

Teresa Martin, Cape Cod Times tech columnist

Teresa Martin, Cape Cod Times tech columnist

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But let’s start at the beginning, perhaps with a term or two, including “broadband” itself. For the sake of discussion, think of broadband as:

  • A digital connection that can be left open and remain on all the time.

  • A digital connection that can both deliver data and receive data at a rate of speed that doesn’t leave you watching small spinning wait wheels on your device.

Another term worth considering is “network.” In this context, a network defines the way we connect people and places so they can share digital information. A broadband network that provides internet access operates at three levels, starting with the Internet backbone.

How the internet was built

In the 1960s, the federal government — with support from universities and research organizations — began building a national network for data and a set of standards for data transmission.

One of this network’s unique defining features lies in how data is moved. Instead of traveling straight and specific from one point to another, it could break into smaller packets and jump in hops between lots of different points, creating many different possible paths.

In Cold War thinking, this created a defense data network that no longer had a single point of failure. Over time, this internet backbone attracted additional commercial investment and became a global network of networks. Some people find it helpful to view this as a sort of interstate highway equivalent.

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As digital information grew, more people used it and thus it needed to travel more widely. A new portion of the network developed to reach beyond the main interstate highway. Today people refer to this portion of the network as the middle mile, analogous to state and local roads.

Finally, we come to the data equivalent of the local access road and driveway. In our broadband story, this portion is known as the “last mile” because it connects a destination endpoint into the middle mile, which then connects to the internet backbone.

All three parts combine to provide what we think of as a broadband access network.

How data travels from originating source to your home or business

But wait, there’s more! The network also requires a piece of hardware inside each point of connection to manage the sending and receiving process. The system works very much like your water connection. Water travels from a water source (think: internet backbone), down a pipe in your local street (think: middle mile), down a pipe that connects to your house (think: last-mile) and gets managed through a faucet (think: electronics).

At each point, we make decisions about the size and materials of the pipe and the faucet, and those decisions combine to create a water network with a speed and flow rate; the same holds true for a data network.

Regardless of the technology you choose, it costs a lot of money to build the infrastructure. The private sector has long used a density-plus-income model to determine investment and return on investment.

In places like the Cape, our relatively low density meant lower return on investment, which meant we were lower on the priority list for infrastructure investment. Remember, for-profit companies exist to generate returns to shareholders, and investment decisions arise from this end goal.

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In 2009 the federal government — as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — appropriated $4.7 billion for the development of middle-mile infrastructure in un- and under-served areas. Under that plan, the Open Cape project (disclaimer: I was one of its founders) installed lots of middle-mile fiber across the region, but that alone did not create access; it brought much-needed investment but provided only part of the answer.

You see, the ARRA logic said that funding the middle mile would trigger private investment into building the last mile and left the “how” of the equation up to the open marketplace.

Here on the Cape — and in other places with similar density profiles — that investment did not follow and so we have copious underused backhaul capacity waiting for its killer app.

Here’s where things turn interesting and also raise the question of next steps for community-based broadband.

Return on broadband investment can be measured in many ways. While most business metrics view return on investment as dollars, communities might see returns in other ways, using social or community value measurements. For example, returns might be measured by addressing the digital divide, attracting and retaining younger generations, increasing economic activity or attracting certain types of business.

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Successful community-based broadband networks tend to use these metrics, as well as financial sustainability, in their planning. They also measure return on investment in decades. That’s the beauty of public investment; it becomes something with a payout for generations, not just the cash on the barrel next quarter.

Make no mistake, our region needs solid, robust and reliable broadband infrastructure — it is a 21st century essential! The way we get there, though, isn’t loving a technology or going into the weeds over wireless or fiber to start. It is by understanding what we hope to accomplish, what will define success, and what structure will let us turn the vision into reality.

Figure that out, and the specific technology will logically follow.

Teresa Martin of Eastham lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: OPINION: Cape Cod broadband more about community than technology